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Orwell and Burke: Strange Bedfellows?

Gordon Marsden sees an identity of outlook between two writers generally seen as occupying opposite ends of the political spectrum in Britain.

Edmund BurkeIn the welter of words to mark the centenary of George Orwell’s birth this summer, tributes will rightly be paid to the singularity which has made him one of our most important writers. But perhaps less commented upon will be the strange similarity between his world-view and that of another polemical writer two centuries earlier, who shares his pugnaciousness and resists easy categorisation – Edmund Burke.

Both men wrote books for their times that could rightly be described as ‘a prophecy and a warning’ - Orwell with his nightmare world of Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty-Four  (1949) and Burke with his white-hot denunciation of events across the Channel in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Orwell builds on his critique-by-fable of Stalinism in Animal Farm (1945) to underline the danger of a future globalisation of totalitarianism, while the power of Burke’s critique lies in the fact, as Conor Cruise O’Brien has emphasised, that its warnings of a brutal and pitiless revolution tearing up the fabric of society, and eventually like Saturn devouring its own children, were written in the first half of 1790, well before the Reign of Terror.

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